Thursday, December 30, 2010

Tech Humor for the Tech Challenged

I caught a bit of The One Ronnie over Christmas. If I'd seen this bit, I might have kept watching...

HT Thabiti Anyabwile.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Wanting to Feel Important

T.S. Eliot wrote, "Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don't mean to do harm, but the harm does not interest them … or they do not see it, or they justify it … because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves."

Although our mission in Christ is to do good in this world, we will actually do harm if our deeper mission is to feel important and "think well of ourselves." Eliot's words forced me to ask, How much harm do I do to my family, my friends, the people I am supposed to lead, all because I want to think well of myself?

from Pastoral Narcissism by JR Kerr

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Student Riots

The big news story of the last few days has been the student riots in London, specifically the way they attacked national institutions, including the Cenotaph and the Prince of Wales. Whether the destruction of the Glastonbury Thorn was part of the same thing is an interesting question.

Newspapers, the BBC, and so on condemn the violence, and rightly so. But they miss the point. I think this is the start of something much bigger. This looks to me like the beginning of the end of an era in Britain.

After World War 2, the British people voted for the setting up of a comprehensive welfare state - education, healthcare and so on all free at the point of delivery. It achieved unprecendented social mobility - both my parents were the first in their family to go to university, and there were thousands like them. A generation or so - those born between 1940 and 1970 - got rich on the prosperity this afforded. And now, having built a bridge from poverty to wealth, and crossed over themselves, they are destroying the bridge behind them.

Of course, there is a certain inevitability about all of this. After the ill-judged massive expansion of university education under Labour, especially without maintaining the same standards of attainment or level of work required, it was inevitable that we would be unable to continue to have largely state-funded places at universities. To restrict funding to just those universities and courses where graduates either benefitted society as a whole and/or had to work so hard during their degrees that they did not have time to spend vast amounts of time and money drinking or working would seem elitist. Furthermore, it is clear that graduates earn far more than non-graduates.

But of course the problem is that the proposed changes do not target graduates - it does not target the people who have benefitted from the years of government subsidy. They target those who will do so in the future, and are written by those who have already done so in the past.

I rather suspect that this is the first of the rebellions against the baby boomers - the "richest generation ever". Their parents made the world a place where they could prosper. They prospered, and now they are stopping their children from doing so rather than taking the consequences of their own actions.

Of course, there are plenty of people in that generation who care for and look after their children well - I am blessed to have them as both parents and parents-in-law. And I don't especially blame the current government - Labour would have delayed the conflict for a few years, but the clash would have been even worse when it came. I rather suspect it is that generation as a whole acting in their own corporate interests rather than in the interests of future generations.

And now their children - especially those born after 1990 or so - are angry. They aren't able to buy houses without their parents helping them. They can't afford the insurance on cars. And now they're meant to be starting their adult life £40k in debt because their parents' generation would rather make them pay than stick 1% on the top rate of income tax for those who have already graduated. I really don't think we've heard the last of it.

Edited to add this:

  • Why is it when we bring children up to value their own rights rather than society that we are surprised when they attack symbols of that society?
  • Why is it that we anounce a change in pension age, and take a decade to bring it in, but we anounce a change in student tuition fees and bring it in almost immediately?
  • Why are we surprised when education has been about how important it is to get good grades and get into university, we then add thousands of pounds to the cost of doing so, and students are annoyed?

I'm not saying for one moment that the student riots were right, only that they were understandable and forseeable consequenes of government action since at least 1997.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

NIV 2011

The NIV has changed. The version that seems to be in most healthy churches is no longer supported. They tried doing it a while ago with the TNIV, which made some minor improvements where the NIV was a weak translation, and switched to gender-neutral language where appropriate. It came under a lot of flack for that, though after listening to women who felt excluded by older language, I concluded it was best to use the TNIV for churches if buying a new set of Bibles.

Now the NIV 2010/2011 has come out, and seems to be replacing both the NIV 1984 (the familiar version) and the TNIV. It's already the default search on Bible Gateway... So I thought it would be worth making some general comments and then looking at how it fares with regards to some of my personal favourite difficult passages for translators...

Here's a helpful summary graph from John Dyer who has logged all the changes.

As you can see, 60% of the verses in the Bible are identical NIV 1984 / TNIV / NIV 2011, and Dyer reckons about 91% of the words are identical - the changes affect a very small proportion of the words, and even of the verses that have been changed, most were only a word here or there.

The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood don't like it, but it's interesting how all their objections are to do with how it fits with their theology which is based on existing translations rather than on the Greek / Hebrew. The simple fact is that Greek allowed for gender-neutral language and modern English uses gender-neutral language, but the old NIV (along with the KJV, ESV, RSV, etc) did not.

1 Timothy 2:11-15

A woman [or wife] should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; [or over her husband] she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women [she] will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.
NIV 2011 (square brackets for footnotes)

11 A woman [or wife] should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; [teach a man in a domineering way; or teach or to exercise (or have) authority over a man] [or over her husband] she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women [she] will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.
TNIV

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women [she] will be saved [or restored] through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.
NIV 1984

A genuinely controversial passage this one, with so much about church life hanging on whether the words mean "woman" or "wife" (same in Greek) and "have authority", "domineer" or "assume authority" (very rare word - we're not sure exactly what it means). CBMW think it should stay as the trad reading. I'm pretty sure they're wrong - it is genuinely controversial how to translate the passage, and I think the translation should show that, as both TNIV and NIV 2011 do.

I should probably say though, I prefer the TNIV on this one because it keeps the ambiguity over what the "assume authority" word means. Unless there's been new work on that that I'm unaware of.

Romans 8:5-9

5 Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. 6 The mind of sinful man [or the mind of the flesh] is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace; 7 the sinful mind [or the mind set on the flesh] is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. 8 Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God. 9 You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.
NIV 1984

5 Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. 6 The mind controlled by the sinful nature [or mind set on the flesh] is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace. 7 The sinful mind [or mind set on the flesh] is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. 8 Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God. 9 You, however, are not controlled by the sinful nature but are in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ.
TNIV

5 Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. 6 The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. 7 The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. 8 Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God. 9 You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ.
NIV 2011

5 For those who are according to the flesh think things of the flesh, but those according to the Spirit [think] the things of the Spirit. 6 For the thought of the flesh is death, but the thought of the Spirit is life and peace. 7 Because the thought of the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not keep the law of God, for it can't. 8 Those who are in the flesh can't please God. 9 But we are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if the Spirit of God dwells in us. If someone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not [Christ's].
John's Clunky Literal Translation

My problem with the NIV 1984 reading is described here. TNIV tackles it a bit, but the NIV 2011 wins hands down for translating it so the problem goes away, though I'm a little uncomfortable with the introduction of "realm" in v9.

Hebrews 2 / Psalm 8

A bit of explanation here. The phrase translated "son of man" is used both as general way of speaking about any person, and also as a specific title for Jesus, because he is the Truly Human One. Psalm 8:4 is an example of using it to talk about people in general, but Hebrews 2 picks it up and uses it to talk about Jesus. Gender neutral translations really struggle with this (except for the NLT which translates Ps 8 differently in Psalms and Hebrews).

what is mankind that you are mindful of them,     human beings that you care for them? [or what is a human being that you are mindful of him, / a son of man that you care for him?]
Psalm 8:4, NIV 2011

It is not to angels that he has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking. 6 But there is a place where someone has testified:
   “What is mankind that you are mindful of them, 
   a son of man that you care for him? 
7 You made them a little [or for a little while] lower than the angels; 
   you crowned them with glory and honor 
 8 and put everything under their feet.”
   In putting everything under them, [or him] God left nothing that is not subject to them. [or him] Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them. [or him] 9 But we do see Jesus...
Hebrews 2:6-9, NIV 2011

Not bad. They footnoted the more literal translation in Ps 8, then quoted that in Hebrews 2. They also correctly kept the ambiguity in v8 about whether we see everything subject to man or to Jesus, though they had to use footnotes to do it. Clearly better than the TNIV, but still a bit awkward.

1 Kings 12:10

The young men who had grown up with him replied, "Tell these people who have said to you, 'Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but make our yoke lighter'-tell them, 'My little finger is thicker than my father's waist.'"
NIV 1984, NIV 2011, TNIV

My little one is thicker than my father's loins.
literal

Here's my earlier discussion of the verse. Looks like the Bible translators still don't have the balls to do a decent translation that doesn't conform to people's unhelpful stereotypes of the Church.

Other Verses and Issues

NIV 2011 still ascribes a masculine gender to the Holy Spirit, despite the fact that the pronouns used in the original are masculine, feminine and neuter, depending on the gender of the word used to describe the Spirit.

Galatians 2:17, the NIV 2011 keeps the TNIV's unhelpful addition of the word “Jews”.

NIV 2011 has undone some of the difficulties arising from pluralisation in the TNIV (see Rev 3:20). I personally think that we should just accept that “they” can be a gender-neutral singular pronoun, but my English teacher wife disagrees!

NIV 2011 has also addressed some of the problems with NIV 1984 - that it always translated the same word as "teachings" if it was in a positive sense and "traditions" if it was in a negative sense. There's now some crossover (e.g. 1 Cor 11:2), but it's still not quite fair.

Conclusion

I should say, I don't care whether the translation fits with my theology or not. I want a translation that fits with the original text in a way that makes its meaning clear to speakers of modern English.

The TNIV was already my translation of preference because it is important not to alienate people who speak more modern English unnecessarily. Pretending that “he” is still gender-neutral does that, even though most churchy people are comfortable with slightly more traditional language.

The NIV 2011 seems to be an improvement on the TNIV. It isn't perfect yet, but translations aren't. However it's a very good translation, and it would probably now be my first choice translation for use in a church where the reading age was high enough to cope.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Quirinius and the Census

I did a talk today on "Has History Disproved Christmas?" The answer, of course, was "No!" But here are a few of my notes about the census problem.

1 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register. 4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.
Luke 2:1-5, NIV 2010

Bock identifies five problems people cite when it comes to this passage.

  1. There was no known empire-wide census under Augustus
  2. No Roman census would have required Joseph to go to Bethlehem to register
  3. Israel under Herod wasn't officially part of the Roman Empire until Herod died in 4BC
  4. Josephus wrote that the first Roman census was under Quirinius in AD6, and that caused a revolt
  5. Quirinius wasn't governor of Syria until 10 years after Herod died. Herod died in 4BC, Quirinius became governor of Syria in AD6.

Here are some answers to those problems, adapted from Bock...

1) The Romans liked doing censuses because they liked taxing people. We know there was ongoing census activity across the Roman Empire at the time of Herod.

3) We also know that vassal kings (like Herod) did censuses too when Rome told them to. There's even evidence that Jews under Herod were paying Roman taxes (and hence had been censused).

If there was a census for Roman taxation and at Roman command under Herod, it makes sense that...

2 & 4) If Herod did a census (before 4BC), he might have done it Jewish-style rather than Roman-style. A Jewish-style census could well involve going to ancestral towns, especially if Joseph owned land in Bethlehem as he might well do if descended from David. A Jewish-style census wouldn't have caused riots like the Roman-style one in AD6 and so is less likely to be mentioned by Josephus, who is the only non-Biblical historian describing Palestine in that period.

It's also clear that the census Luke is talking about isn't the one in AD6. For example, a census after 4BC wouldn't have required Joseph to go from Nazareth to Bethlehem - after 4BC they were in different provinces. Luke also knows about the AD6 census - he mentions it and the rebellion in Acts 5:37.

So what about Quirinius? Luke 2:2 reads "This was the first census that took place whilea Quirinius was governor of Syria." But the 2010 NIV has a footnote saying “Or this census took place before...”

The word in question is πρωτος - dictionaries define it as “first, before, greatest”. So it could be talking about the census BEFORE the one where Quirinius was governor of Syria (the one in AD6 which caused all the trouble). We've got the same issue in English with the word "prototype", which is from πρωτος. Is the prototype of a new car before that car, or the first one?

Literally, the verse reads “this was the first census of Quirinius, governor of Syria.” Qurinius may well have been asked to administer the census by Herod, even though he wasn't governor of Syria yet. In the same way, we might say "President George W Bush was a notorious drunkard as a young man", even though he wasn't president when he was a young man.

In conclusion, these verses don't seem to provide good reason to doubt the historicity of Luke's account.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The Apprentice

I've got to admit, I do quite enjoy watching The Apprentice. It's amusing in particular how no-one ever suggests that each team should work as a team, and put their success as a team ahead of their individual success. It's a much better strategy than the one most of them adopt. But then I suspect there's more than a grain of truth in Mitchell & Webb's assessment...

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Richard Baxter on Science and Religion

Richard Baxter might seem like an unusual person to quote on science and religion. As far as I know, the Vicar of Kidderminster didn't have any real connection with science. But he was clearly part of the Puritan movement, and the scientific revolution of the 1600s largely grew out of Puritanism. Baxter wrote his classic book The Reformed Pastor just 4 years before the Royal Society was founded, so it's an interesting reflection of what sort of thing Puritans were saying about science at the time...

I hope you perceive what I aim at in all this, namely that to see God in his creatures, and to love him, and converse with him, was the employment of man in his upright state; that this is so far from ceasing to be our duty, that it is the work of Christ to bring us, by faith, back to it; and therefore the most holy men are the most excellent students of God's works, and none but the holy can rightly study them or know them 'Great are the works of the Lord, sought out of all them that have pleasure therein;' but not for themselves, but for him that made them. Your study of physics and other sciences is not worth a rush, if it be not God that you seek after in them. To see and admire, to reverence and adore, to love and delight in God, as exhibited in his works - this is the true and only philosophy.
p.83

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Has Science Disproved God?

Earlier today, I did a talk called "Has Science Disproved God?" at Apologetics in Manchester. It seemed to be very well received. You can find audio of the talk here, and the handout here.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Richard Baxter - The Reformed Pastor

I recently finished reading the classic book The Reformed Pastor by the great Puritan Richard Baxter. It's basically a book length plea for clergy to work hard rather than slacking off, and to devote their time especially to visiting for the purposes of evangelism and discipleship, specifically by teaching the catechism (and Baxter didn't really mind which catechism...)

It's the kind of book that ought to be a must-read for clergy, and I can well see why it was so heavily recommended at college. But last time I mentioned it in a gathering of clergy, no-one there had read it. Here's a sample quote:

For my part, I study to speak as plainly and movingly as I can, (and next to my study to speak truly, these are my chief studies,) and yet I frequently meet with those who have been my hearers eight or ten years, who know not whether Christ be God or man, and wonder when I tell them the history of his birth and life and death, as if they had never heard it before... I have found by experience, that some ignorant persons, who have been so long unprofitable hearers, have got more knowledge and remorse of conscience in half an hour's close discourse than they did from ten years' public preaching.
p.196

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Looking at the UK

There's a really interesting report here on the UK - always interesting to see our culture from an outside point of view.

In quick summary, the UK is one of the nicest places in the world to live, but if you went by what people think of it, you'd think it was one of the worst. For example, we're ranked 101st out of 110 countries for financial confidence and 40th for feeling safe walking home alone at night (though we're actually 23rd).

Meekness

Then let me go further: the man who is meek is not even sensitive about himself. He is not always watching himself and his own interests. He is not always on the defensive. We all know about this, do we not? Is it not one of the greatest curses in life as a result of the fall - this sensitivity about self? We spend the whole of our lives watching ourselves.

But when a man becomes meek he has finished with all that; he no longer worries about himself and what other people say. To be truly meek means we no longer protect ourselves, because we see there is nothing worth defending. So we are not on the defensive; all that is gone.

The man who is truly meek never pities himself, he is never sorry for himself. He never talks to himself and says, "You are having a hard time, how unkind these people are not to understand you." He never thinks "How wonderful I really am, if only other people gave me a chance." Self-pity! What hours and years we waste in this!

But the man who has become meek has finished with all that. To be meek, in other words, means that you have finished with yourself altogether, and you come to see you have no rights or deserts at all. You come to realise that nobody can harm you. John Bunyan puts it perfectly. "He that is down need fear no fall."

When a man truly sees himself, he knows nobody can say anything about him that is too bad. You need not worry about what men say or do; you know you deserve it all and more. Once again, therefore, I would define meekness like this. The man who is truly meek is the one who is amazed that God and man can think of him as well as they do and treat him as well as they do. That, it seems to me, is its essential quality.

D Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount Vol 1, p57-58
Quoted in The Briefing, July-August 2008

I think Lloyd-Jones is spot on in some ways. He is right in terms of what meekness looks like. But I think his definition fails when it comes to look at Jesus - Jesus surely sees rightly and therefore knows that he does deserve all honour and glory.

And of course I am a sinner and deserve nothing more than God's righteous indignation against me, but if I also recognise that everyone else is a sinner as well, it should surprise me less if I do some things better than some other sinners, just as they do some things better than me.

It seems that the essence of meekness is more than just recognition of our sinfulness - it is also choosing to lay down any claims to status that we might have which are based on ourselves. And the helpful and challenging stuff that DMLJ writes then follow...

Monday, October 18, 2010

The De-Churched and God's Judgement

Here's a graph I find absolutely terrifying. It shows church attendance stats for the UK (I think it's for 2005).

On the horizontal axis is a breakdown on the population by age. And on the vertical axis is the proportion of the population as a whole. The three colours on the chat represent those who are currently regular attenders at church (at least once a month), those who used to attend church but no longer do so and those who never attended church.

Roughly 60% of the population have never attended church. Roughly 30% of the population used to attend church but now no longer do so.

What terrifies me is what this means for those who have been leading the church over the past few generations. God entrusted the care of his people to them, and they presided over the decline of the church so severely that nearly 75% of those who are now 85-year-olds were once part of a church, but only 15% or so of children currently are. Roughly 80% of living Brits who have been part of a church are no longer part of the church.

42The Lord answered, "Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom the master puts in charge of his servants to give them their food allowance at the proper time? 43It will be good for that servant whom the master finds doing so when he returns. 44I tell you the truth, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. 45But suppose the servant says to himself, 'My master is taking a long time in coming,' and he then begins to beat the menservants and maidservants and to eat and drink and get drunk. 46The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the unbelievers. 47"That servant who knows his master's will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows. 48But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.

Luke 12:42-48, NIV

I can hear in my head the sort of conversation God will have with people who were ministers during that time. When God tells them of the privilege it was to be made a steward over his household and family, and asks them what they did with it. When they try to make their pathetic excuses for how they did their job so poorly that 5 out of every 6 people in their churches left and the church went from being seen as the foundation of society to being a boring irrelevance in just two generations.

And the church leaders today who carry on the trend - who don't see that their job is about bringing people to know Jesus - it is about saving lives rather than making sure the few already in the lifeboat have more comfortable cushions as they watch the rest of the world drown. Is their lot going to be any better?

God's judgement and wrath against the vast majority of British church leaders over the last few generations is going to be terrible. And that scares me, because God has called me to follow after them, and I am beginning to see something of what an awesome responsibility it is...

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Extraordinary Interview with Russell Brand

It isn't often your opinion of someone changes totally over a very short space of time. I just watched an absolutely extraordinary conversation between Jeremy Paxman and Russell Brand. Well worth watching - here are a few snippets.

No-one cares about religion any more... because we've been fed this grey sludge of celebrity glittered up and packaged and lacquered and sent directly into our brains by the media.

If you are pursuing [celebrity] for its own end, that's absolutely ridiculous.

[Paxman]Do you ever worry you're going to burn out?
[Brand] Well, I'm going to die, so yes.

Growing up, I wanted to be famous and now I am famous, and what does it mean? Ashes in my mouth...

Hat Tip to Marcus at Digital H20.

Monday, October 11, 2010

J.S. Bach - the point of music

The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul. If heed is not paid to this, it is not true music but a diabolical bawling and twanging.
J. S. Bach (1685-1750), Glory and Honor: the musical and artistic legacy of Johann Sebastian Bach, Gregory Wilbur & David Vaughan, Cumberland House Publishing, 2005, p. 1

What Bach says of music goes for pretty much everything else too! And yes, there can still be good in music not written by Christians, because we still retain a remnant of the image of God, but in terms of anchoring and purpose, it's totally adrift.

HT CQOD

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Spurgeon - Lectures to My Students - Quotes on Preaching

Here are some more excellent quotes from Spurgeon's Lectures to My Students, this time on the subject of preachers and preaching, but also including evangelism and apologetics...

Painfully do I call to mind hearing one Sabbath evening a deliverance called a sermon, of which the theme was a clever enquiry as to whether an angel did actually descend, and stir the pool at Bethesda, or whether it was an intermitting spring, concerning which Jewish superstition had invented a legend. Dying men and women were assembled to hear the way of salvation, and they were put off with such vanity as this! They came for bread, and received a stone ; the sheep looked up to the shepherd, and were not fed.
p.79

Some ministers need to be told that they are of the same species as their hearers.
p.183

But if you are drawn into controversy, use very hard arguments and very soft words.
p.188

Is religion to be tabooed the best and noblest of all themes forbidden? If this be the rule of any society, we will not comply with it. If we cannot break it down, we will leave the society to itself, as men desert a house smitten with leprosy. We cannot consent to be gagged. There is no reason why we should be. We will go to no place where we cannot take our Master with us.
p.189

It is to be hoped that we shall never, in our ordinary talk, any more than in the pulpit, be looked upon as nice sort of persons, whose business it is to make things agreeable all round, and who never by any possibility cause uneasiness to any one, however ungodly their lives may be.
p.189

Monday, October 04, 2010

Jim Collins, Good Leadership and the Gospel

The gospel should make us better leaders.

The other day, I heard a talk by leadership guru Jim Collins, at the GLS. Jim Collins isn't a Christian as far as I know, but quite a bit of what he said ties in rather strongly to the Gospel.

For example, the first stage he identified in "how the mighty fall" was hubris born of success - failing to recognise that success isn't all our own doing. He even suggested that one of the best exercises for leaders of successful organisations to do was to "count their blessings" - to write out a list of good things that have happened to them or that they have that they haven't earned. It seems that understanding something of grace and having something resembling a healthy gratitude is key to being a great leader.

Another key feature that Collins identified was the importance of listening to feedback that is critical of you, especially when you are succeeding rather than having your sense of self invested in your achievements.

Or take the Stockdale Paradox. General Stockdale survived being a prisoner in the "Hanoi Hilton" POW camp because he never gave up believing that he would be let out. But at the same time, the optimists in the camp did not survive, because they kept saying things like "we'll be out by Christmas", and could not cope with the repeated disappointment. What is needed, said Collins, was both faith in the eventual outcome, but also willingness to face up to the brutal facts of the present. And isn't that exactly the Christian attitude to faith in a God whose victory will become clear in the end but often isn't in the present.

Yet another example. Collins said "the enduring greats are driven by a passion beyond money and value", and emphasised the need to be non-negotiable on core values, but very flexible when it came to aiming to achieve our objectives. Once again, it's Biblical.

And all of this got me wondering two things.

1) If the gospel implies great leadership, why is the quality of Christian leadership so often lower than great?

2) How do non-Christian great leaders manage it? My boss wisely suggested that they substitute some other aim for the gospel, effectively becoming idolaters and slaves of an ideal. But I'd much rather serve the real thing!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Spurgeon - Lectures to My Students - Quotes on Prayer and Many Words

I recently finished reading one of the absolute classic books on ministry - C.H. Spurgeon's Lectures to My Students. Of all the books I've read on ministry, it is one of the very best and certainly one of the funniest! It's also just about the only book I've read on sermon preparation which gives about the right amount of weight to the importance of prayer... It's so good, in fact, that I may well do a mini-series of quotes from it!

Here are some on prayer and the dangers of too many words.

slovenly, careless, lifeless talk in the guise of prayer, made to fill up a certain space in the service, is a weariness to man, and an abomination to God. Had free prayer been universally of a higher order a liturgy would never have been thought of, and to-day forms of prayer have 110 better apology than the feebleness of extemporaneous devotions.
p55

Fine prayers are generally very wicked prayers. In the presence of the Lord of hosts it ill becomes a sinner to parade the feathers and finery of tawdry speech with the view of winning applause from his fellow mortals.
p56

Never fall into a vainglorious style of impertinent address to God; he is not to be assailed as an antagonist, but entreated with as our Lord and God.
p58

Verbiage is too often the fig-leaf which does duty as a covering for theological ignorance.
p74

The art of saying commonplace things elegantly, pompously, grandiloquently, bombastically, is not lost among us, although its utter extinction were "a consummation devoutly to be wished."
p77

Praying is the best studying.
p90

My brethren, it is a hideous gift to possess, to be able to say nothing at extreme length.
p165

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Hurt Locker

I missed this one when it was at the cinema, but I aim to watch all the films that won the "Best Picture" Oscar.

It starts with the quote

"The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug."

And the whole film is basically an illustration of that.

It follows the story of a bomb-disposal team in Iraq towards the end of their time there, with all sorts of hard-hitting encounters between them and Iraqis.

I wouldn't say it was a pleasant film, or a nice film to watch. It isn't something I'd especially like to watch on an evening in front of the TV. But it's a really good film, and a thought-provoking one.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Sex and the Pope

There's a really interesting article by Peter Hitchens here about people's response to the Pope's visit. It's well worth a read - here's the section that struck me most...

The special condemnation reserved for the Romish church also suggests, absurdly, that such horrors never took place, or were covered up by, liberal secular institutions. They did, and have been. Yet this is never advanced as an argument against the secular liberal state (and it would be a bad argument, if it were).

The sex scandal is not, as it happens, the real reason for the anger directed against the Bishop of Rome. If it were, then the undoubted case against the Roman Catholic hierarchy could be made without all the puce-faced exaggerations, straightforward lies and total lack of proportion which infect it. It is overblown precisely because it is not the true issue, but a pretext.

This is what it is really about: the sons and daughters of the sexual revolution, the inheritors of 1968, are actively infuriated by anyone who dares to suggest that their behaviour in their personal lives might be, or might ever have been, selfish and absolutely wrong

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Give Me Only My Daily Bread

How would you feel if you got a pay rise? My guess is that you'd feel pretty happy, because pay rises are one of those things that people just like. Surely the only way that anyone could be sad at getting a pay rise is if they were expecting an even bigger rise!

But that's actually a reflection of the culture we live in – a culture that just accepts and assumes that money is good. So in the financial news, we read things like “Richard Branson is worth £3 billion”, as if the amount of money that people have in some way reflects how much they are actually worth. And even though Christians don't always go that far, we've still been far too influenced by the culture around us, and not influenced enough by the Bible. And that goes for me too.

So when we read words like Agur's prayer in Proverbs 30, it comes as a counter-cultural breath of fresh air.

Two things I ask of you, O LORD;
do not refuse me before I die:
Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
give me neither poverty nor riches,
but give me only my daily bread.
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
and say, 'Who is the LORD ?'
Or I may become poor and steal,
and so dishonour the name of my God.
Proverbs 30:7-9, NIV

Agur prays: “Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread.”

There are two things we can learn from this short prayer.

Firstly, poverty and riches are both dangerous.

It's worth being clear on what we mean by poverty and riches here, because people mean different things by the word “poverty”. What Agur means is being so poor that he is tempted to steal so that he and his family have enough to eat.

That sort of poverty is dangerous, says Agur, because he'll be tempted to steal, and that would dishonour God. And generally, I think the church has understood that one. We want to help people who are that poor, and we see that it's a good thing to pray that we wouldn't be that poor.

So what about being rich? Agur uses “rich” to mean “having enough money that we don't have to consciously depend on God for what we need to survive”. Now by that definition, I guess almost all of us are rich. I know I am. I've got enough money and skills and I'm in a rich enough country that realistically I don't need to worry about where my food is coming from.

But that need to depend on God was built into the very way the Promised Land worked. Here's Moses speaking just before Israel enters the Promised Land in Deuteronomy 11.

The land you are entering to take over is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you planted your seed and irrigated it by foot as in a vegetable garden. But the land you are crossing the Jordan to take possession of is a land of mountains and valleys that drinks rain from heaven. It is a land the LORD your God cares for; the eyes of the LORD your God are continually on it from the beginning of the year to its end.
Deuteronomy 11:10-12, NIV

Egypt is a flat desert country with a big river going through it. So to grow plants, you need to dig ditches for the water to get through. To stay alive, you work and trust yourself, and if you work harder, you can get rich. But Israel wasn't like that – it was lots of hills and little streams, so you needed to trust God for the rain. Hard work didn't mean as much, and it was harder to get rich. What mattered most was trusting God. Being part of God's people was tied up with leaving Egypt, the land where you worked for your food, and living in Israel, the land where you trusted God to bring the rain.

But if you're rich, says Agur, you can start feeling like you don't need to trust God. You can even say “Who is the LORD?” which is what the King of Egypt says when he won't let Israel go. He thinks you get where you are by hard work, and he's rich so he doesn't trust God and doesn't even recognise him. That's the danger of wealth – that we stop trusting God.

Why is it that in general, the richer a country is, the less we see God moving and the less of his power we see at work in the church? Why is it that the churches in Britain where God seems to be doing the most are full of students or immigrants, neither of whom have any money? Isn't it because by and large, we are rich, so we've stopped trusting God? We don't see the danger of wealth, so we fall for the trap.

Everything else in life, we see that you can have too much as well as too little. We know that too little food is bad for you, and too much food is bad for you as well. We know that too little exercise is bad for you, and too much exercise is bad as well. Well, too little money is bad for you, and too much money is bad for you as well.

We aren't jealous of people who've had too much food, are we? And we aren't jealous of people who have had too much exercise. So why should we be jealous of people who have too much money? Shouldn't we be sorry for them because they will find it harder to trust God?

What about those who can't help being rich? Well, here's Paul writing to Timothy.

Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.
1 Timothy 6:17-19, NIV

Those of us who are rich should remember and take care not to be arrogant, and not to trust in money, but to trust God who gives us everything we have. If we are rich in this age, says Paul, well are we rich in good deeds and generosity? And will we be rich in the age to come?

Those of us who are rich now need to be very careful that we invest in the kingdom of God – in the age to come – so that we can take hold of the life that is truly life. Because otherwise we're going to be the poor ones. We need to remember that our wealth is just something that is going to pass away, so we need to use it wisely and well now.

You know, people have done a lot of research about whether money makes you happy. And what they have found wouldn't have come as much surprise to Agur. They found that when people are very poor, the more money they have, the happier they are. But once people have enough money to survive, having more money doesn't make them any happier. Too much money is dangerous, and it doesn't make you happy.

And as Christians we know that true satisfaction doesn't come from money – it comes from knowing Jesus and being known by Jesus, from loving God and knowing that we are loved and accepted by God.

We all know that the happiest people we know aren't the richest, so why do we still so often aim for money?

But if money is dangerous, what should we aim for? This brings us on to the second point we can learn from Agur. Godliness is more precious than gold.

Look at v9. What does Agur actually want? What does he actually pray for? He prays that he won't have too little money, because then he'll dishonour God. And he prays that he won't have too much money, because then he'll forget God. What Agur really wants is to love God more, and to value God, and to trust God.

Agur wants godliness, because he knows that godliness is more valuable than gold. So we should aim for godliness too, the way that a lot of society today aims for money. We should aim for what will help us be closer to God, and what will help us love God more.

Aim to have enough money that you don't have to steal, but not so much that you'll trust your bank account rather than your God, and if too much money is a problem for you, then give the rest away.

Don't go for the job that pays the best; go for the job that will help you be the most godly. Don't go for the more comfortable house, go for the house that will enable you to use it the most for God's kingdom, because godliness is more valuable than gold.

And what does it mean for our prayer lives? What can we learn from Agur's masterclass in prayer?

Well, what do we pray for? Do we pray that our friends and family will get good jobs, or do we pray they will get jobs that help them to be godly, even if that means they'll be struggling financially?

Do we pray that we would be comfortable, or that we would be holy? When people are in pain, do we pray that they would be free from pain or that they would learn to trust God more through their pain? Don't get me wrong, it's important to pray for healing, but it's far more important to pray for godliness.

We pray for the poor, and for poor Christians, who struggle to survive. Do we pray for rich Christians who will struggle to keep on trusting God?

Are we willing to pray “Lord, please don't give me a pay rise if having more money will stop me trusting in you?”

Are we brave enough to pray, as Agur did, “Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread.”

Monday, September 13, 2010

Folk Religion

Round where I live, there's a pretty strong belief in a folk religion. The beliefs go something like this:

  1. Everyone, well, except maybe the really bad people, goes to heaven when they die.
  2. Heaven is probably disembodied
  3. The main attraction of heaven is meeting up with everyone we know and love
  4. In the meantime, those who have died are “looking down on us”.
  5. This is “Christianity”
  6. Celebrations in Christianity are having a christening for babies, a church wedding (optional), and a Christian funeral, as well as turning up to stuff at Christmas and occasionally Easter. After all, that's what you learn about in RE. There might be more beliefs about Jesus and stuff, but they don't really matter and all boil down to this.
  7. Anything more is optional, and is nice for those who need it as a support or to help kids learn about stuff.

Every single one of those beliefs is, of course, wrong.

It's also peculiarly resilient as a system of belief. In large parts of England, people question it and reject it. Those are the parts I've been better trained to reach. But here, by and large, it remains unquestioned by most people. But it's resilient because people won't change their ideas unless they're explicitly contradicted and argued and shown the truth. Merely preaching about the importance of stopping to think doesn't help when they just stop to think the same wrong things over again.

But contradicting some of those facts makes only a tiny amount of difference - I mean, what good would it do them if they change their minds to think of heaven as resurrected rather than disembodied, but still hold onto their universalism and the highlight of heaven being other people?

Other facts are ones that the church often acts embarrassed about – the fact that the Bible clearly teaches that some people (and not just the really bad ones) are going to hell, for example. And that's almost certainly inappropriate for talking about at a baptism or funeral which are the only occasions these people come to church.

Which means it's back to preaching the importance of responding to God...

Friday, September 10, 2010

Burning the Qur'an?

There's a big row about some American nutter who decided to burn a Qur'an and then decided not to, but lots of Muslims rioted anyway.

And there's something about the whole story that I just don't get. It's obviously big enough for world leaders to intervene...

Most of the Muslims I know and have known have been reasonably intelligent, socially moderately normal people. There were a few oddballs, but I know plenty of non-Muslim oddballs as well. Most people in poor countries I know and have known have also moderately normal.

So is there something about Muslims in Afghanistan that means they stop maturing at about the emotional maturity of a stroppy teenager?

Or is it a normal, mature and sensible human reaction to riot and kill people because some silly chap on the other side of the world bought a Qur'an with his own money and then set fire to it? And let's be honest, he didn't set fire to it, and the one he would have set fire to was probably only an "interpretation" of the Qur'an (i.e. translation), which the Muslims don't even think is holy.

I'm a committed Christian, and have a very high view of the Bible. And to be honest, if someone down the road bought a Bible and set fire to it, or used it as loo roll, I don't especially mind - they can do that if they want to. I might like to have a chat with them about why they felt that way, but they're free to do it.

I am fully aware that people blaspheme God, and say all kinds of nasty things about him, and disrespect him in all kinds of different ways. Now I disagree with them, but I figure that God is big enough to deal with that himself.

So what is going on? Is there a new thought police in town? Do Afghan Muslims have an emotional age of 13? Is the God they believe in too small to look after himself? Or is the media whipping up a storm in a teacup to sell copies?

I don't know, but there's something odd going on...

Monday, September 06, 2010

All the Old Gods

All the old gods haven't gone away - they've just changed their names a bit.

There's a line which I hear quite a bit when we talk about idolatry - something like this. "In the old days, idolatry was much more obvious because you'd worship Thor or Jupiter or someone. But now it's harder because it's much more subtle."

I've been thinking about that a bit over the last few days, and I disagree.

In Roman times, for example, you'd worship Bacchus, god of wine in two ways. One was going to the temple of Bacchus, and the other was partying and eating lots of food and drinking lots of wine and getting drunk. Except often what you did when you visited the temple of Bacchus was parting and drinking.

Or you'd worship Venus, goddess of sex, in two ways. One was going to the temple of Venus. And the other was ritualised pursuit of sex for its own sake. And sure enough, at the temple of Venus there were loads of ritual prostitutes who "helped" people seek sex.

I think we do exactly the same today, except without naming the gods. We still worship Bacchus, and Venus, and others.

Plato's Academy, in many ways the prototype for the university, was built around a temple to Athena, goddess of wisdom (known to the Romans as Minerva). And in the same way, a lot of people at universities today still worship her.

We worship the old gods whenever we pursue sex, drunkenness, wisdom, knowledge, sporting prowess, fitness, anything, for its own sake or for its own enjoyment rather than for God's sake. As St. Augustine wrote:

He loves Thee too little who loves anything together with Thee, which he loves not for Thy sake.

And one of the great things about Roman religion was that it wasn't fussy or exclusivist. It was perfectly happy with people worshipping Bacchus one evening and Venus another, then taking a trip to the temple of Athena. They weren't fussy about what the gods were called, and were happy to identify them with foreign equivalents. They were fine with people worshipping whatever and whoever they wanted, as long as they let them get on with their own business and devotion to their own gods.

And where other cultures were happy to go along with that, Rome just tended to assimilate them because of its greater cultural output and power.

Where the problems came for Christians was that God claimed exclusive allegiance. Christians could not just go to the temple of Venus for a quick fix of casual sex and then go home as normal. They couldn't burn incense to the emperor when they started claiming their place in the pantheon. And they said that other people should abandon their worship of all the old gods, which was seen as far too exclusive.

Sound familiar?

Friday, September 03, 2010

God, Stephen Hawking and the BBC

The currently most-read article on the BBC website has this headline "Stephen Hawking: God did not create Universe". As a Christian who has studied a fair bit of physics, I'm going to discuss that. Quick summary of my conclusions: Hawking has got it a bit wrong, but the media are over-sensationalising it as usual. And in the process, they are providing a massive amount of free advertising for Hawking's new book.

It's worth pointing out that I haven't read Hawking's article, because it's behind the Times' paywall, or Hawking's book, because it hasn't been published yet. But at this stage of his career, Hawking is far more a populariser of ideas than an original thinker, so I've got a pretty good idea where he is coming from on this...

The BBC quotes Hawking as writing:

Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.

Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.

It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.

Science and Religion

It's worth explaining a few things from these quotes. Firstly, Hawking's philosophy of how God acts in the universe. Hawking seems to have a kind of "God of the gaps" idea going on here - he only sees it as "necessary to invoke God" when there is no other explanation for something.

Of course, Hawking isn't stupid enough to go down the classic God of the Gaps line. He'd probably draw a distinction between when it is "necessary to invoke God" - i.e. when there is no other explanation for something, and when it is possible to invoke God - i.e. when there is an explanation for something that includes the possibility that God is behind it. The Christian answer - that science describes the way that God chooses to run the world - would be treated as when it is possible to invoke God rather than when it is necessary to do so.

Hawking is still wrong though. Rowan Williams is better (quoted on the front of the Times Online today):

Belief in God is not about plugging a gap in explaining how one thing relates to another within the Universe. It is the belief that there is an intelligent, living agent on whose activity everything ultimately depends for its existence.

In other words, Rowan Williams (correctly IMO) asserts that God's existence and action is necessary for science to keep working at all. God and Science aren't competing explanations for the same phenomenon.

Of course, the journalists seem to have even less understanding of this, and think that because Hawking says it isn't necessary to invoke God, he's denying God was involved at all. That's partly because it sells more papers or gets more people looking at the website, and partly because they don't have sufficient understanding of the topic to report accurately on it.

Creation and Quantum Fluctuations

The other thing that is worth explaining is what it means for Hawking to write that "Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing."

In quantum physics, things do sometimes just appear out of nowhere, and then vanish again. But when they do, the total amount of energy involved multiplied by the time they last for has to be less than about 10^-34 Js. So an electron / positron pair, for example, could only last about 10^-21s - one thousand billion billionth of a second. And something bigger would last even less long. So we don't see them very often and they don't usually make much difference to the universe on a big scale.

But that is the only known way of getting something out of nothing. So if the universe wasn't created - it just happened - that's the only known way for it to happen. The problem with that of course is that the universe has lasted quite a while - roughly 14 billion years. Therefore, in order for this theory to work, it needs to have almost exactly zero total energy.

The only known way of having a sufficiently large amount of "negative energy" is through gravity. Imagine that there is a lump of rock a very long way from the Sun, and it isn't moving. Now imagine that it falls towards the Sun, and in doing so it speeds up. It has clearly gained kinetic energy because it is moving. At a year 7 level, we'd say it has converted Gravitational Potential Energy (GPE) to Kinetic Energy (KE). But at the start, its total energy was zero, and at the end its KE is positive, therefore its GPE must be negative.

It's often asserted in astrophysics circles that Black Holes have zero total energy, because all the negative GPE cancels out the positive energy from their mass. And therefore it is possible to get something out of nothing if the something is a black hole because it has zero total energy. On the other hand, I've done a masters course in astrophysics, and I've never once seen that calculation done, or even referenced. Personally, I don't believe it, and I believe it even less when it comes to saying the universe as a whole has zero total energy, but am happy to change my mind if given a good reference that doesn't just assert it.

If it was true, it should mean that you get black holes popping into existence and staying there quite often, and we don't see that happening.

But the idea here is that many cosmologists think that that is what happened with the universe - it popped into existence as a kind of unstable black hole with zero total energy that then exploded. And that's what Hawking means by saying that gravity allows the creation of something from nothing.

(Images from NASA)

Monday, August 23, 2010

Remaking a Broken World - Chris Ash

One of the things that winds me up about Bible overviews is that they always seem to take the same point of view, usually based on Graeme Goldsworthy's People / Place / Presence idea. It's a good way to do a Bible overview, but it only gives one perspective and there's so much more to see! Chris Ash here chooses a different point of view - the point of view of scattering and gathering.

I'd strongly recommend the book to anyone who has done a Bible overview from the Goldsworthy point of view (or read its best write-up in God's Big Picture by Vaughan Roberts) and wants something a bit different. From my point of view as a Bible teacher, the first two thirds was good but not much new except for his wonderful treatment of Babel. The last third or so of the book, where he gets on to talking about the Church, was spectacular.

The thesis of this chapter, indeed the theme of the book, is precisely this: the ordinary local church with all its imperfections, weaknesses, oddities and problems, has within in the seeds, the spiritual and relational genetic blueprint, of a broken world remade.
p.138

When I walk in Jesus' footsteps and become 'like a child' I will willingly receive 'a child' into my group. Only when my self-perception is that I am a despised nobody will I welcome other despised nobodies into my fellowship. Only when I am deeply humbled will my door be open to the lost, the struggling and the desperate.

If we do not receive nobodies, we do not receive Jesus Christ. That is why putting up barriers of pride is so serious. That is why it would be better to have a quick and early death by drowning than to do something like that. That is why it is so desperately important that a church be a church of 'children', a church in which status is zero and agreed to be zero and proclaimed to be zero.
p.150

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Iron Sharpens Iron - Orlando Saer

 

This is by far the best book I have ever read on how to lead a small group for Bible study and prayer. If I was training Bible study leaders, I'd seriously think about using it as a curriculum. When I'm next in charge of homegroups, I may well buy every leader a copy and ask them to read it.

Having been a homegroup leader for many years, and been in homegroups or Bible Study Groups in many different churches and CUs, there's nothing especially new or revolutionary in it, but it's an excellent compendium of best practice and training.

I bought it because of the number of recommendations I'd seen from people much more knowledgeable and experienced in this area than me. The recommendations were, of course, right.

Monday, August 09, 2010

The Importance of Prayer

I'm being really challenged at the moment about the importance of prayer. Just this morning, I was reminded from Ephesians 2 that by nature we are dead and objects of wrath. What hope therefore can there be for us to act in our own strength? What hope can there be that people will respond to preaching or to evangelism unless the Holy Spirit of God moves them. And if he moves us, how can we resist?

It is frequently a disappointment to me that so few books on preaching speak much about prayer. A great exception, of course is Spurgeon's Lectures to my Students.

If you can dip your pens into your hearts, appealing in earnestness to the Lord, you will write well ; and if you can gather your matter on your knees at the gate of heaven, you will not fail to speak well. Prayer, as a mental exercise, will bring many subjects before the mind, and so help in the selection of a topic, while as a high spiritual engage ment it will cleanse your inner eye that you may see truth in the light of God. Texts will often refuse to reveal their treasures till you open them with the key of prayer.

...

The minister who does not earnestly pray over his work must surely be a vain and conceited man. He acts as if he thought him self sufficient of himself, and therefore needed not to appeal to God. Yet what a baseless pride to conceive that our preaching can ever be in itself so powerful that it can turn men from their sins, and bring them to God without the working of the Holy Ghost. If we are truly humble-minded we shall not venture down to the fight until the Lord of Hosts has clothed us with all power, and said to us, " Go in this thy might." The preacher who neglects to pray much must be very careless about his ministry. He cannot have comprehended his calling. He cannot have computed the value of a soul, or estimated the meaning of eternity.

...

How much of blessing we may have missed through remissness in supplication we can scarcely guess, and none of us can know how poor we are in comparison with what we might have been if we had lived habitually nearer to God in prayer.

C.H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, chapter 3

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Brian McLaren and the Kingdom of God

When Jesus began his preaching, his message was this: “The Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.” (Mark 1:15). And in the last few years, at least three groups within the Church have really taken on board this idea. I'm part of two of those groups (conservative evangelicals and charismatics), and I've got friends and colleagues who are very sympathetic to the other one (Brian McLaren and the Emergent Village). I've heard both very good and very bad things about McLaren, so I thought it worth getting to grips with him and his message. Following the recommendation of a friend who likes McLaren, I've read his book “The Secret Message of Jesus” as a way in (Thomas Nelson, 2006). What follows is therefore part book review, and part essay on the significance of the phrase “Kingdom of God”.

McLaren is quite open about the fact he is reacting against those who proclaim Jesus as their personal Saviour, but where Jesus doesn't make a difference to their lives – those who see Jesus as their Saviour, but not their Lord, and also against those who use the Bible as a way to condemn others' morals and so on. Of course, the danger with reactionary theologies is that they over-react and ditch the baby with the bathwater. And such seems to be the case here.

He sees the central teaching of Jesus as the proclamation of the Kingdom of God, and the central feature of the kingdom of God being our horizontal relationships with each other as part of God's new community. And his vision of this new community (largely around the Sermon on the Mount) is at times well-explained and moving, but fundamentally lacking. For example, here he summarises the purpose of Communion:

a kind of regular recommitment where people say, by gathering around a table and sharing in bread and wine, that they are continuing Jesus' tradition of gathering in an inclusive community. (p.166)

My alarm bells started ringing in the introduction. McLaren writes: “For example, you may wish that I had said more on particular dimensions of Jesus' message or life which are of special importance to you.” (p.xvii) Then there's an endnote, which when I chased it up told me that Jesus' death was considered as one of the “dimensions that might be of special importance to some readers”!

That's not to say that McLaren ignores Jesus' death. He does however take a thoroughly Girardian take on it, though not as well worked through as Girard himself. (Girard argues that Jesus in his death takes the violence of the mob on himself and so exposes the roots of human violence and scapegoating, in doing so opening the way for a new kind of society. I think he's right, but his approach can only be one facet of the truth.) McLaren, however, is more scathing about particularly Penal Substitution.

When we think of the language of Jesus' secret message, we realise quickly that for many people these days, to mix a political term like kingdom with a religious term like God sounds... scary, even terrorizing. We can't help but think of the dangerous religious-political cocktails of crusade and jihad, colonialism and terrorism, inquisition and fatwa – manifested in oxymoronic terms like holy war and redemptive violence. (p.149)

What's “redemptive violence” doing in that paragraph? Isn't it a kind of “guilt by association? And what would someone who wrote that think of Hell?

But all of that is side issue. For me, the central weakness of McLaren's work is that he misses the main point of the Kingdom of God. The main point of the Kingdom of God is God's King. “Christ” is a royal title – it's used of God's anointed kings in the Old Testament (e.g. 1 Sam 24:6). The proclamation of the Kingdom of God is picked up by the apostles precisely because it is the proclamation of Jesus as Lord and Christ. McLaren is at his absolute weakest in chapter 9, when he discusses how the apostles carried on Jesus' teaching. He picks up on the few references to the “kingdom of God” without looking at what the apostles actually preached, which was much closer to the fact that Jesus Christ is Lord, which McLaren seems to totally ignore.

McLaren's kingdom, good though some of the descriptions are, and helpful though his exhortations to follow the ways of the kingdom are, is ultimately a kingdom without a king. This is particularly striking in chapter 16, where he argues that Jesus wouldn't have used Kingdom language at all today, and discusses what else he'd have called it. His suggestions (the dream of God, the revolution of God, the mission of God, the party of God, the network of God, the dance of God) are all notable because they aren't anywhere as hierarchical as the kingdom language that Jesus used. It is the Kingdom precisely because Jesus is the King.

For McLaren, Jesus seems reduced to being the potentially divine revealer of a better way who then disappears from the picture as all are welcomed into the inclusivistic dance - rather than the enthroned King of the Universe, who we are invited to know for ourselves. And of course that knowledge should be one that makes us into a new community and that follows him as Lord, but that is what the Church has always preached, and there's no reason to ditch it.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Spurgeon - a New Biography by Arnold Dallimore

I started reading this book as part of Tim Challies' Reading Classics Together. That looks like a good idea for reading difficult stuff together, but 2 chapters a week is too slow a pace for a book I enjoy reading, as I did this one, so I finished it way ahead of schedule. Still, thanks to Tim Challies for suggesting it.

As a source on information about Spurgeon, it's pretty good. I'd heard of him, of course, but not realised quite how much God used him, and if this biography was aimed to make readers more fans of Spurgeon and wanting to read more of his work, in my case it certainly succeeded.

It was a great read, but I don't think it worked as a biography for several reasons. One was that I think by the end of the book we got to know Spurgeon as fans, but not as people who knew him did. We don't really get to know Spurgeon - he's always at arm's length. I guess that's especially true of his childhood. So when Spurgeon starts preaching at 15, or becomes pastor of a church aged 17, he seems almost a curiosity, rather than understanding where that came from or even what sense of calling he felt to it.

Dallimore comes across as a huge fan, which is ok in a biographer. But he also reads too many of today's controversies into Spurgeon's life. So, for example, chapter 19 contains this section:

This opposition to evangelical truth sprang first from the publication in 1859 of Darwin's Origin of Species. Teaching that life had originated not by divine creation but by blind chance, it directly contradicted the Scriptures and obviated the very idea of the existence of God.

Dallimore then goes on to conflate Darwin's ideas with the later German theological liberalism, and cites Spurgeon numerous times against liberalism to show that he also opposed Darwinism. Never once does he cite Spurgeon on Darwin. Now I'm not a 19th century historian, but as far as I can tell, Dallimore there is taking two different (but possibly linked) things, and saying they are the same. In doing so, he assumes lots of stuff about Biblical interpretation and theology of science, which I don't think is justified.

He's also very reticent to say that Spurgeon drank alcohol and smoked - it's almost as if he sees writing the book as a hagiography rather than a biography, and he wants Spurgeon to conform to his own culturally assumed norms of holiness. Though to be fair, he does include both, as well as mentions of Spurgeon's depression, though he always links that as a symptom of his gout.

I don't doubt that Spurgeon was a great man of God, and Dallimore gives us some great insights into how God used him, and what his priorities were. As a record of Spurgeon's life, this is good, and it's a good introduction to the man, but I wouldn't class it as a great biography.

Dallimore is more famous for his two-volume biography of George Whitefield, which I haven't read. On the basis of reading this, I'm more likely to read it, and I hope it gives us better insight into the man himself and what drove him and led him to become the man he was.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Spurgeon Quotes on Ministry

I've just finished reading a biography of the great Victorian preacher CH Spurgeon, of which more to follow.

But here are a few quotes from the great man:

Whatever "call" a man may pretend to have, if he has not been called to holiness, he certainly has not been called to the ministry.
Lectures to my students, p.3

Better abolish pulpits than fill them with men who have no experimental knowledge of what they teach... He who presides over a system which aims at nothing higher than formalism, is far more a servant of the devil than a minister of God.
Lectures to my students, p.5

A man who has really within him the inspiration of the Holy Ghost calling him to preach, cannot help it - he must preach. As fire within his bones, so will that influence be, until it blazes forth...
Autobiography

Are churches in a right condition when they have only one meeting for prayer in a week, and that a mere skeleton?The Sword and the Trowel, August 1887

"Do not enter the ministry if you can help it," was the deeply sage advice of a divine to one who sought his judgment. If any student in this room could be content to be a newspaper editor, or a grocer, or a farmer, or a doctor, or a lawyer, or a senator, or a king, in the name of heaven and earth let him go his way...
Lectures to my students, p.23

True preaching is an acceptable adoration of God by the manifestation of his gracious attributes : the testimony of his gospel, which pre-eminently glorifies him, and the obedient hearing of revealed truth, are an acceptable form of worship to the Most High, and perhaps one of the most spiritual in which the human mind can be engaged.
Lectures to my students, p.54

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Shrek 4

Yesterday, we went to see Shrek 4 - "Shrek - Forever After" at the cinema. Not the 3D version, because that's just a silly overpriced gimmick which means you have to keep your head vertical...

Shrek 1 was a work of genius in the way it reworked fairy stories and went against the grain. Shrek 2 was a pretty good continuation of it, that heavily referenced and parodied modern culture. Shrek 3 was so easily forgettable I can't find anyone who can remember it well, though I've found several people who think they've probably seen it.

Shrek 4 doesn't parody anything really. It just uses most of the same characters, with one new major character (the evil Rumplestiltskin), who is largely as in fairy tales rather than being a clever twist on it. It's a fun film, and a decent one - probably better than 3, but nowhere near either 1 or 2 in standard. There are a couple of really clever moments, and one really romantic one, but they're the exception rather than the rule.

It's like they tried writing a decent-ish story with the same characters (albeit in a parallel universe where Shrek was never born), and it's just all a bit too pedestrian in comparison with the first two - as if the clever writers had run out of steam. Fun, but not fantastic.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

A(nother) Flaw in the Rules of Football

Last night, Uruguay were playing Ghana in the World Cup. In the last minute of extra time, the score was 1-1, and Ghana had a very good shot on goal. The Uruguayan striker Suarez quite clearly pushed the ball off the line using his hands. He was sent off; Ghana missed the resulting penalty; Uruguan went on to win on penalties.

The problem is this: As the rules stand, Suarez's action was sensible and was self-sacrificially doing the best thing for his team. Had he not handled the ball off the line, his team would have been knocked out. As it was, handling the ball off the line ensured that his team still had a chance of going through, a chance which they duly took. The rules therefore encourage fouls in such situations.

The most obvious modification to deal with this would be the introduction of a penalty goal, as in Rugby. The rule would run something like this:

If a player commits a foul to prevent an otherwise certain goal, they shall be sent off and the referee shall award a goal to the side and player that would have scored had the foul not been committed.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Priorities in Global Mission

This is an extract from an e-mail sent to me by a friend of mine who is involved in mission in the Muslim world...

Every year, the world Christian Church gives 125 BILLION dollars to Christian missions, through more than 20,000 different agencies....

Now considering the strategic importance of Islam, what percentage do YOU think the Church allocates to North Africa and the Middle East - the heartlands of Islam?

Think of a number before you scroll down...

5%?

..

..

2%?

..

..

1%?

..

..

Actually it is 0.07% - just 84 million dollars!

I ask myself a simple question:

"Is this really the result of a Spirit led strategy in the Church?"

Or does it show that the global Church would rather put resources into more 'responsive' areas (which often already have flourishing Christian populations?)

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Haddon Robinson - Expository Preaching

I read this book because a good friend who is also a good preacher strongly recommended it to me. And he was right to do so.

It is just about the best book I've read on how practically to prepare a sermon on a passage of the Bible. It's aimed at an introductory level, but so that it's thought-provoking and challenging for people who are used to it as well. If I was teaching someone to preach, or helping someone to preach better (unless there was a specific issue to deal with), this is just about the number 1 book I'd want them to read. When I was at theological college, I attended several lectures on preaching, and used to wonder how they could be done in such a way that would be accessible to people with a variety of different levels of experience and skill. This is how.

It allows for a variety of styles and outcomes, and acknowledges that good preachers often do things radically differently from the method he recommends for preparation, but it's good to hear how he'd do it, and I've found his method helpful for dealing with the task of writing a sermon when I don't feel in the mood to do so.

I might do a post in the future on how he recommends a sermon should be prepared...

The one thing I thought was a huge and dangerous omission is that he talks remarkably little about the importance of prayer for the preacher. Preaching is not something that is fundamentally our work - it is God's work through us, and while it is of course important to understand the passage and explain and expound it in a way that is relevant to the hearers, it is useless unless God speaks to their hearts by his Holy Spirit. Prayer should permeate the process of sermon preparation through and through. But if you assume that from the start, this gives you a good way to prepare a sermon which will proclaim God's Word faithfully, relevantly and hopefully challengingly.

Monday, June 28, 2010

What Motivates Us?

This is a very interesting film. If that's what the research shows - as well as (un-)common sense, experience and yesterday's TV - then why do people keep on pushing on the silly track?

Of course, there's a lot that can be said from that for running churches...

(HT to +Donald)

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Video Preachers

Krish Kandiah has started an interesting discussion about preachers at megachurches who video their sermons for use in other congregations.

It's long been something I've been uncomfortable with, but not been able to put my finger on precisely why not. Krish suggests 4 problems with the approach:

  1. Cult of personality
  2. Lack of feedback / communication
  3. Lack of relationship
  4. Consumer Church

I think I'd agree that all of those are definite dangers, but I'd push the "personality cult" point further than Krish does. Having video sermons seems to say that not only is the Main Preacher unusually gifted (which may well be true), but it makes it harder to raise up good secondary leaders, or even good primary leaders for other churches / to succeed the main leader.

Consider the following scenario:

A church has 4 main congregations on a Sunday, meeting in different venues. For the sake of unity, the church leader decides that they will all have the same passage on the same day. Main Preacher does 2 of them, and upcoming leaders do the other two. Main Preacher's job is then not only preparing the sermon, but also mentoring the two upcoming leaders in preaching. They do a significant fraction of their preparation together or in discussion with each other, but end up with finished products which are their own. This doesn't add significantly to the workload of Main Preacher, and means that the upcoming leaders get the benefit of being mentored by Main Preacher, improve quicker. After a few years, if they were already fairly gifted and worked hard, they would likely be able to preach at a similar standard to Main Preacher, and probably taking a style of their own, albeit one heavily influenced by Main Preacher, and the result is greater multiplication of the ministry.

If these upcoming leaders are (for example) people who already know how to preach and are fairly gifted in it, that looks like a much better way of doing it in the long term.

I should add that I've got a lot of respect for John Piper, Mark Driscoll et al, and I'm sure they've got good reasons for doing it. I just don't see what those reasons are, and would be interested to know...

On the other hand, I'm aware that the church I'm a minister at does use video sermons from time to time as a way to give staff a month or so off preaching. That seems like a good idea, as long as it isn't regular...

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Orienting Ourselves Right

We ask "Where does God fit into the story of my life?" when the real question is "Where does my little life fit into the great story of God's mission?"

We want to br driven by a purpose that is tailored just right for our own individual lives, when we should be seeing the purpose of all life , including our own, wrapped up in the great mission of God for the whole of creation.

We talk about "applying the Bible to our lives". What would it mean to apply our lives to the Bible instead, assuming the Bible to be the reality - the real story - to which we are called to conform ourselves?

We wrestle with "making the gospel relevant to the world". But in this story, God is about transforming the world to fit the shape of the gospel.

We argue about what can legitimately be included in the mission that God expects from the church, when we should ask what kind of church God wants for the whole range of his mission.

I may wonder what kind of mission God has for me, when I should be asking what kind of me God wants for his mission.

CJH Wright, The Mission of God, quoted Total Church p.34

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Tattoos and the Body of Christ

Following on from my previous post, one of the obvious markers of social class (round here at least) is tattoos.

Working class men, especially of my age, tend to have obvious tattoos. Middle class men don't. I don't live in an especially rough area, it's certainly a lot nicer than some places I've lived. But it's a fairly traditional working class housing estate, and I'm conscious that I'm about as middle class as it is possible to be, and I don't really fit in.

Q. What proportion of men aged between 25 and 60 have noticeable tattoos?
A. According to this US page, 40% of people aged between 25 and 40 have tattoos. I can't find stats for Britain. I'd guess at least 50% of men on this estate do... There are 3 or 4 guys in the congregation with noticeable tattoos, and a few women as well.

Q. What proportion of male clergy aged between 25 and 60 have noticeable tattoos?
A. I'd guess very low. I know hundreds of male clergy in that age bracket, and I can hardly think of any with noticeable tattoos. Isn't there a question there about being incarnational?

Because of the way the C of E works, I only get three years here. If I knew I was spending my life trying to reach this sort of estate, I'd seriously consider getting a tattoo, maybe like Pete Postlethwaite's in Romeo + Juliet (see above). Don't know what my wife would say though!

Theologically, tattoos were banned for Israelites in the OT Law (Lev 19:28). But we're not Israelites, and in the NT, we're told Jesus has a tattoo (Rev 19:16), which is probably symbolic rather than literal.